Friday, January 06, 2006

Book Report: The Barbary Plague

It's easy to think of the Bubonic Plague as a medieval affliction only, but it's still around. Cases are reported every year in many countries around the world, including the US. Thankfully, most outbreaks are isolated, and nothing like the what was experienced in San Francisco in the first years of the 20th century.

Starting in 1900 with an outbreak in Chinatown that terrified and terrorized the inhabitants, and reaching its height in the aftermath of the great earthquake and fire or 1906, the Plague was a major threat to public health in the city by the bay.

In The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco,author Marilyn Chase details the history of the outbreak in SF, shows how political in-fighting and back-room shenanigans almost derailed the efforts to protect the city, and explores the lives of those who risked their own health to help protect others.

It's a well-researched and well-written book, which should be a good read for those with an interest in the history of SF, the history of medicine, or looking for examples of how public policy was formed. It's especially intriguing for the glimpse at the racism the Chinese of San Francisco faced in the new century.

I found many of the individuals in the book to be fascinating, including Joseph Kinyoun, a doctor whose lack of political tact led to his being nearly railroaded out of the city, in spite of the fact he was sincere in his efforts to stop the spread of the disease. Another compelling character, about whom I'd like to know more, is "Boss" Abe Reuf, one of those larger-than-life types that make early San Francisco history read like something from a Preston Sturgis film. After placing a hand-picked candidate in as mayor, and accepting payoffs from nearly everyone in town, he was eventually indicted on something like 65 counts of taking bribes.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Who the F**K is Ryan Seacrest???

Ok, I know I'm so far out of touch with popular culture that I couldn't reach it with a map and a dead albatross, but could somebody please tell me who the hell Ryan Seacrest is and why he's famous?

As far as I can tell, he's famous for being famous.

He's not an actor. Or a singer. I think he may "host" a reality TV show or something. He may also do the odd celebrity interview before major awards shows, or something equally useless. But really...why?

He's not attractive, his...well, sort of moist and doghy. He's entirely artificial (Ryan Seacrest? Yeah, that's your real name.), completely without charisma as far as I can tell, and all-around a bad idea.

Does anybody remember when you had to actually be well-known to be a "star?" I find it hilarious how I'll pick up a People magazine at the hairdressers and flip through pages of people I've never heard of, under headlines like "Superstar Prisccilla Pointless Bares it All at Cannes!" Ooh....goodie. Who is that? And why does her nose look like it fell off and was stuck back on with Superglue?

In today's disposible culture of fame, apparently it takes nothing more than having 3 out of 5 people think you're attractive in order to become a celebrity.

Which still doesn't explain who the hell Ryan Seacrest is and why we should care.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Attack of the J-Pop
And speaking of KZSU...

Last night, being the first Tuesday of the month, I was joined on my show by DJ Cho-beri-ba for another edition of "Tokyo Radio Tsumami." As usual, I played an hour of new world music (that's music that is both new and world...not "new world" music which sounds all "oh, we have found the new world"-ish). Then we (Ok, he) played 2-hours of hyper-caffeinated Japanese pop music from artists such as Porno Graffiti, B'z, and the ever-bubbly Morning Masume.

During the evening we spoke a bit about the Red & White Singing Festival (see below), and found that, once again, our tastes are completely different. While I was screaming in hilarity over the surreality of artists such as Gorie and whoever it was who had dancing Darth Vaders and Stormtroopers as part of their act, he was hitting the fast-forward button in order to watch his favorite artists actually sing.

Honestly, some people just don't get it.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Broaden your musical horizons in 2006
Entertainment Weekly, that bible for the "tell me what to think" crowd has released its dull and pointless list of the best music of 2005. No offense to list-sitters Fiona Apple, Kanye West and others, but I would like to suggest that if you aren't already musically adventurous, that you strike out some new territory for a new year.

I don't really want to make a list of the best, because there were so many amazing releases in 2005...nor do I claim that my suggestions are better than EW's....just a bit more interesting because so few people know about them.

Some of my highlights for the year:

Up and Down by the Palm Wine Boys. This SF Bay Area-based band released a quiet, fun little album that quickly became one of my favorites of the year. It's melodic folk/pop/West African Palm Wine music that cannot help but improve your mood. Honest. Trust me.

Chavez Ravine by Ry Cooder. This concept album about the destruction of a Latino neighborhood to make way for LA's Dodger Stadium is a musical buffet. A wide variety of musical styles, all of them played with flair and panache, make for a truly varied and engaging listen.

Celtic Crossroads, yet another wonderful Putumayo compilation. This one features glorious vocal harmonies, tight playing, and a sweet and captivating selection of music. And speaking of compilations...

Swing Around the World, also from Putumayo, is a fun, funky, hip-shaking, grin-inducing gas. You'll smile, you'll dance around the kitchen, you'll have a fine old time. Truly one of the most joyful, playful releases in ages.

Prototyp by Hurdy-Gurdy. Two members of Nordic superbands Garmarna and Hedningarna team up for a crazy, delicious, original selection of instrumental songs all created by morphing sounds of hurdy-gurdies into a sort of ancient/modern synth mix. Too hard to describe, just listen.

I know, that's only five...but I have work to do.

Monday, January 02, 2006

P-E-C-O-R-I Night!
So how was your New Year's Eve?

One of the traditions Forrest and I have for that evening is our annual viewing of the NHK Red & White Singing Festival, courtesy of KTSF in San Francisco. It's a 56-year old festival that is, apparently, the most watched annual TV event in Japan and it is truly, truly odd.

Teams of male (the white team) performers alternate with female (the red team) to perform everything from hyper-caffeinated J-pop to tear-wrangling ballads....and everything in between. The costuming and set designs are (you must read this with a hugely affected drag queen accent) faaabulous! Dancing cartoon characters. Women in break-away dresses. The Japanese Simon & Garfunkel on acoustic folk, followed by hoards of 13-year old look-alike girls with cheesy Dance Fever choreography.

This year's highlight, though, had to be Gorie, a female impersonator (competing for the women's team) dressed like a cheerleader, surrounded by blinding dozens of other cheerleaders, and go-teaming his/her way through a Japanese version of that epic 70s classic Saturday Night. (Remember the Bay City Rollers?) This version (called Pecori Night) was a veritable feast for the senses and only slightly terrifying. Gorie (that's the famous Gorie, above) was on the losing team, but did bring me nearly to tears with laughter.

Happy new year, everyone. May 2006 be as surreal as a Gorie cheer.